For the past year, I’ve had a single ‘go to’ non-fiction recommendation for customers at the store: The Black Count. It’s an excellent pick, as it combines aspects of military history and biography with some of the more obvious tie-ins to the works of Alexandre Dumas, the writer (Alexandre Dumas père, as the general’s grandson, Alexandre Dumas fils was also a writer).
The life story of General Dumas — of the times he lived through, of his unique place in them — is very compelling reading.
Like I said, I’ve been handselling this book for a year already. When The Black Count won the Pulitzer back in April I wasn’t surprised, and it made the sales pitch even easier. The paperback was released in May, and once again: this only made the job of selling this book that much easier. (Yes, I was pushing this book even as a $27 hardcover). I’ve been doing this for a full year now — it’s been featured on the BBC and NPR and my customers still haven’t heard of it. It’s obvious to me but I seem like a genius bookseller whenever I pull this pick out of my ‘back pocket’.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
by Tom Reiss
ISBN 9780307382474, Broadway Books (Random House)
From the publisher: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/140278/the-black-count-by-tom-reiss
see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Count:_Glory,_Revolution,_Betrayal,_and_the_Real_Count_of_Monte_Cristo
see also: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/books/review/the-black-count-by-tom-reiss.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
“SLAVE. SOLDIER. LIBERATOR. HERO. General Alex Dumas is a man almost unknown today, yet his story is strikingly familiar — because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used his larger-than-life feats as inspiration for such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. But, hidden behind General Dumas’s swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: he was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas made his way to Paris, where he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution—until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat. TIME magazine called The Black Count ‘one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that sheds light on the historical moment that made it possible.’ It is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.”
The Package Tour is a new feature* for the blog, a way for me to review books (and other media) in the way most comfortable for me. Sometimes, writing a review seems much too much like writing a book report, and it’s been a looong time since I was in university, let along grade school. And I’ll be more honest: a book review is *not* how we sell books. Folks come in, and they ask for a ‘cold’ recommendation (see The Black Count op cit.) or after some back-and-forth and conversation, and figuring out customer preferences and predilections, we warm up to a topic and I get to riff. I’m good at that part – I read a little bit of everything, I’m a freakin’ trivia machine, and I’m awfully hard to stump; I don’t know if this is real job skill or not, but it makes me one hell of a bookseller.
Today, for this tour, we’re taking The Black Count as our point of departure.
The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution
by Alexis de Tocqueville
ISBN 9780141441641 (paperback), Penguin Classics
From the Publisher: http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141441641,00.html?Ancien_Regime_and_the_French_Revolution_Alexis_de_Tocqueville
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Regime_and_the_Revolution
“A powerful new translation of de Tocqueville’s influential look at the origins of modern France. In this penetrating study, Alexis de Tocqueville considers the French Revolution in the context of France’s history. De Tocqueville worried that although the revolutionary spirit was still alive and well, liberty was no longer its primary objective. Just as the first Republic had fallen to Napoleon and the second had succumbed to his nephew Napoleon III, he feared that all future revolutions might experience the same fate, forever imperiling the development of democracy in France.”
From the Penguin Classics website:
“The Ancien Régime and the Revolution is a comparison of revolutionary France and the despotic rule it toppled. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) is an objective observer of both periods – providing a merciless critique of the ancien régime, with its venality, oppression and inequality, yet acknowledging the reforms introduced under Louis XVI, and claiming that the post-Revolution state was in many ways as tyrannical as that of the King; its once lofty and egalitarian ideals corrupted and forgotten.
“Writing in the 1850s, Tocqueville wished to expose the return to despotism he witnessed in his own time under Napoleon III, by illuminating the grand, but ultimately doomed, call to liberty made by the French people in 1789. His eloquent and instructive study raises questions about liberty, nationalism and justice that remain urgent today”
As noted by wikipedia, the title is also translated as The Old Regime and the Revolution, and as de Tocqueville is in the public domain: many different versions are available. (good luck finding a decent e-book version — but on the other hand, plenty of the crap versions are Free, so download away) (Project Gutenberg didn’t have an edition of this title at time of posting).
Yes, your memory of high school history class is correct, de Tocqueville is also the ‘Democracy in America’ guy — de Tocqueville wrote his history of the revolution in the 1850s, well after events and their fall-out, and he was not a wide-eyed citizen-patriot and kool-aid drinking romantic. His take on the events that followed the revolution is remarkably cynical and modern. His language (even in translation) is not particularly modern; if you have trouble with ‘the classics’ (Dickens, Austen, Brontës et al.) you might seek out different sources.
Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution
by Mark Steel
ISBN 9781931859370, Haymarket Books (distr. by Consortium)
From the publisher: http://www.consortiumacademic.com/book.php?isbn=9781931859370
“Vive la Revolution is an uproariously serious work of history. Brilliantly funny and insightful, it puts individual people back at the center of the story of the French Revolution, telling this remarkable story as it has never been told before. For the Haymarket edition, Steel has added a new preface for North American readers and revised the book to address parallel themes in US history.”
Mark Steel on wikipedia:
“A stand-up comedian known for his left-wing beliefs (he was a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party before he resigned in 2007), he has made many appearances on radio and television shows as a guest panellist, and has written regular columns in printed media.”
The French Revolution was not a laugh-a-minute occurrence; however, if your only knowledge of the event comes from Mel Brooks’ History of the World you should definitely supplement that with Steel’s ‘stand-up’ history.
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
by Caroline Weber
ISBN 9780312427344, Picador (Macmillan)
From the publisher: http://us.macmillan.com/queenoffashion/CarolineWeber
“When her carriage first crossed over from her native Austria into France, fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette was taken out, stripped naked before an entourage, and dressed in French attire to please the court of her new king. For a short while, the young girl played the part.
“But by the time she took the throne, everything had changed. In Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber tells of the radical restyling that transformed the young queen into an icon and shaped the future of the nation. With her riding gear, her white furs, her pouf hairstyles, and her intricate ballroom disguises, Marie Antoinette came to embody—gloriously and tragically—all the extravagance of the monarchy.”
Especially for Rose of Versailles [oops, getting ahead of myself; see below] it would be good to brush up on at least one biography of Marie Antoinette — and there certainly are plenty to choose from — but over the other bios and even the novels based on her life, I think Queen of Fashion does the best job. The major historical ‘plot points’ get hit, and on top of that you get quite a bit of insight into the social scene and how the court of Louis XVI worked. Also in that light:
Versailles: A Biography of a Palace
by Tony Spawforth
ISBN 9780312603465, St. Martin’s Griffin (Macmillan)
From the publisher: http://us.macmillan.com/versailles/TonySpawforth
“The story of Versailles is one of high historical drama mixed with the high camp and glamour of the European courts, all in an iconic home for the French arts. The palace itself has been radically altered since 1789. Versailles sets out to rediscover what is now a vanished world: a great center of power and, for thousands, a home both grand and squalid.
“Using the latest historical research, Spawforth offers the first full account of Versailles in English in over thirty years. He probes the conventional picture of this ‘perpetual house party’ and gives full weight to the darker side: not just the mounting discomfort of the aging palace but also the intrigue and status anxiety of its aristocrats, as well as the changing place of Versailles in France’s national identity since 1789.
“Many books have told the stories of the royals and artists living in Versailles, but this is the first to turn its focus on the palace itself—from architecture to politics to scandal to restoration.”
Especially for some of the pre-Revolutionary stories – a study of Versailles grounds one; this is a case where the events of the day really are married to the space-and-relative-dimensions-in-time**.
The only modern equivalent I can think of is Washington, DC, “inside the beltway” — where architecture and geography seem to define—or at least shape—policy and politics. If nothing else, in the 1770s they were dressed better.
The most obvious pieces of fiction to tie into The Black Count are classics: The Count of Monte Cristo, natch, and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities; for Monte Cristo there are a number of well thought-of film adaptations, though it seems that there isn’t a decent version of Two Cities — well, there is a 1935 film and a 1989 made-for-tv version, but nothing to stack against a good BBC Austen Romp or a Branagh Shakespearean Excess.
Less well known is Dumas’s novel Georges, a “riviting novel” of “swashbuckling adventure”, “a slave rebellion, duels, and battles at sea”, at least according to the jacket copy; I readily admit I haven’t read it myself. The main character, though, is a mixed-race French colonial who is well received in Parisian social circles, but who eventually runs afoul of the white establishment. After you read Reiss’s biography of the General Alex Dumas, the parallels are painfully obvious. Literary scholars, at least according to Wikipedia, note the book as a precursor to the more successful Count of Monte Cristo, which reused several of the ideas and plot devices. (kudos to Alexandre for responsible recycling.)
I’d also remind readers about The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy [one ISBN 9780451527622, many versions to choose from; see also wikipedia, Project Gutenberg] — The Pimp. is basically French Revolution Batman (which is nowhere near as awesome as it could be) and is a delightful enough diversion if one is in the mood for duels and daring-do.
Personally, when it comes to the Napoleonic Wars, I find my own reading dominated by the ships: Patrick O’Brian, of course [The Aubrey/Maturin series, book one is Master and Commander (ISBN 9780393307054), set in 1800] and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower [I’d start with Beat to Quarters (ISBN 9780316289320), and then go back and begin chronologically with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (ISBN 9780316289122), set in 1794; check this guide and wikipedia for additional detail]
Lesser known are Dudley Pope, who wrote the Lord Ramage series, which starts with Ramage in 1796 [ISBN 9780935526769, wikipedia] and Alexander Kent with his Richard Bolitho series, initially set in 1772 [start with The Complete Midshipman Bolitho, ISBN 9781590131275; see also wikipedia].
If you quickly sour on the nautical, I do have one more pick in reserve: Bernard Cornwell is an all-around great historical action/adventure writer, and his best known character is Sharpe; Sean Bean played Richard Sharpe for TV — a great place to start, highly recommended, not currently easy to purchase but it can be done with work/searches/ebay, and just to watch: also via DVD rental through the kind offices of Netflix. If after all that you (like me) still want to read the books I’d start with Sharpe’s Tiger [ISBN 9780060932305], set in 1799, and read them in chronological order [check the about.com guide or wikipedia for addition info; the US editions usually have the setting date on the spine as they were written out of chronological order]
That’s a lot of British history though — odd, that books written in English would focus so hard on the British…
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.
by Sandra Gulland
ISBN 9780684856063, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster)
From the publisher: https://catalog.simonandschuster.com/TitleDetails/TitleDetails.aspx?cid=1326&isbn=9780684856063
“In this first of three books inspired by the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Sandra Gulland has created a novel of immense and magical proportions. We meet Josephine in the exotic and lush Martinico, where an old island woman predicts that one day she will be queen. The journey from the remote village of her birth to the height of European elegance is long, but Josephine’s fortune proves to be true. By way of fictionalized diary entries, we traverse her early years as she marries her one true love, bears his children, and is left betrayed, widowed, and penniless. It is Josephine’s extraordinary charm, cunning, and will to survive that catapults her to the heart of society, where she meets Napoleon, whose destiny will prove to be irrevocably intertwined with hers.”
Gulland’s trilogy is, as a pick (shall I say), pretty damn obvious. Let me pick a series you haven’t read yet:
Napoleon’s Pyramids (Ethan Gage Series #1)
by William Dietrich
ISBN 9780062191489, HarperCollins
From the publisher: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Napoleons-Pyramids-William-Dietrich/?isbn=9780062191489
see also: http://williamdietrich.com/ethan-gage-series/
“The world changes for Ethan Gage — onetime assistant to the renowned Ben Franklin — on a night in post-revolutionary Paris when he wins a mysterious medallion in a card game. Framed soon after for the murder of a prostitute and facing the grim prospect of either prison or death, the young expatriate American barely escapes France with his life — choosing instead to accompany the new emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, on his gamble to conquer Egypt. With Lord Nelson’s fleet following close behind, Gage is entangled with generals, archaeologists, and mystics. And in a land of ancient wonder and mystery, with the help of a beautiful Macedonian slave, he will come to realize that the cursed prize he won at the gaming table may be the key to solving one of history’s greatest and most perilous riddles: Who built the Great Pyramids … and why?“
Finally, an American we can root for. [*snicker*]
Looking beyond the rarefied realm of classic lit is, obviously, more fun. After a grounding in history, the various fictional side-lines make more sense, and honestly: I find these books even more enjoyable in context.
Now: If we are now well-and-truly-grounded in the time and place and books — Let’s riff:
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
Rightstuf has the complete DVD set on sale right now for the ridiculous price of $17.99 [obviously time dependent, article posted 22 Sep 2013]
Nothing says ‘adaptation’ quite like taking Dumas’s titular hero and turning him into a blue elf from beyond the Moon. —I’m only half kidding. Maybe less than half. That said, this is a visually arresting anime, decently plotted, and true-enough to the source material; I enjoyed it.
“Albert is a young man of privilege in Paris, but the trappings of his aristocratic birth leave him bored and unsatisfied. Seeking adventure, Albert’s restless spirit leads him to a festival on the moon – and to the Count of Monte Cristo.
“An enigmatic man of charm and wealth, the Count of Monte Cristo’s charisma and sophistication captivate Albert. The fascinated youth invites the nobleman to mingle within the upper echelons of Parisian society, and the Count is soon courting the favor of France’s most powerful families. Little does Albert know, as his new friend walks the ornate halls of the highest class, the Count of Monte Cristo wants only to bring them crashing down through vengeance.”
Volumes of the Gankutsuou manga are available, but stick to the anime on this one.
Le Chevalier D’eon
“Paris, 1742. A coffin floats in the shimmering Seine. On the lid, a word written in blood: ‘Psalms.’ Inside, the body of a beautiful woman: Lia de Beaumont. Now her brother, D’Eon, seeks the reason for her mysterious murder and uncovers an evil that casts shadows in both the palaces of kings and the dark alleys of Europe. A power wielded by spell-casting poets and manipulated by royalty. A force so powerful it brings Lia’s soul back from beyond to seize the only weapon she can possess to avenge her death – her own brother.”
There was a real Chevalier D’eon, whose life story would make a decent manga (espionage, intrigue, blackmail) but the life of the real Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d‘Éon de Beaumont has little to do with the manga/anime adaptation that currently bears the name D’Eon.
On to the crown jewel, as it were:
Rose of Versailles
part 1: http://www.rightstuf.com/1-800-338-6827/catalogmgr/iORJY6nWMu8TaH26M=/browse/item/97140/4/0/0
part 2: http://www.rightstuf.com/1-800-338-6827/catalogmgr/iORJY6nWMu8TaH26M=/browse/item/97141/4/0/0
“General Jarjayes, desperate for a son to preserve the family name and noble standing, names his newborn daughter ‘Oscar’ and chooses to raise her as a boy. Fourteen years later, Oscar is a masterful duelist, marksman, and the newly appointed Commander of the French Royal Guards. Her first task: to protect Marie Antoinette, who is engaged to the French prince and future king, Louis-Auguste.
Even though the planned marriage should provide both countries with some much needed peace and prosperity, the French court is a dangerous place. Marie’s youthful naivete makes her an easy target for those who wish to see the monarchy overthrown. Oscar soon finds herself both defending Marie’s reputation from those who seek to discredit her and protecting her life from those who wish to kill her.”
Reading about the back story of Rose of Versailles is almost as satisfying as the original: Ikeda wanted to write a manga story about Marie Antoinette, but Oscar quickly became the break-out fan favorite character
By K. J. Parker
ISBN 9780316177757, Orbit (Hachette)
From the publisher: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/kj-parker/sharps/9780316177757/
see also: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/07/a-conversation-in-steel-a-review-of-sharps-by-kj-parker, http://www.orbitbooks.net/author-spotlight-k-j-parker/
“K.J. Parker’s new novel is a perfectly executed tale of intrigue and deception.
“For the first time in nearly forty years, an uneasy truce has been called between two neighbouring kingdoms. The war has been long and brutal, fought over the usual things: resources, land, money…
“Now, there is a chance for peace. Diplomatic talks have begun and with them, the games. Two teams of fencers represent their nations at this pivotal moment.
“When the future of the world lies balanced on the point of a rapier, one misstep could mean ruin for all. Human nature being what it is, does peace really have a chance?”
Check the Orbit overview for more; Parker has written a number of historically-glossed fantasy novels featuring “duels and daring-do” — If you love the court intrigue and bare-bladed action of things like the Three Musketeers, but wanted something written with more modern language and more modern character motivations, you should start here.
Promise of Blood (Powder Mage Trilogy #1)
by Brian McClellan
ISBN 9780316219037, Orbit (Hachette) – Paperback coming 7 January 2014, ISBN 9780316219044
From the publisher: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/brian-mcclellan/promise-of-blood/9780316219037/
see also: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/04/gunpowder-and-grit-a-review-of-promise-of-blood-by-brian-mcclellan
The Age of Kings is dead… and I have killed it.
It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…
Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.
It’s up to a few…
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.
But when gods are involved…
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…
Even more than Game of Thrones (which I have kind-of-given-up-on, as Martin writes like glaciers advance) The Powder Mage Trilogy is the series I’m anticipating and following for the next couple of years.
[*note: this will be a new weekly column if this experiment works.]
[**yes, that was intentional. I almost didn’t use it, as it is a-bit-too-clever-by-half, smug and both self- and fan-aware. Neat turn of phrase though, if I do say so myself]
Thanks for reading through the whole article; I hope a few of my recommendations appealed to you.
If you’d like to recommend another “point of departure” for the next Package Tour, drop a suggestion in the comments or contact me via email/twitter.